Introduction: This story was included in a collection of my parents’ fiction titled Píseň pro Den smíření (“Song for the Day of Atonement”), published in Prague in 1971 and almost immediately confiscated by the Czech Communist government.
The book’s disappearance dealt a blow to my parents’ aspirations as writers. Having survived the Holocaust—my father in Bucharest, my mother in the mountains of Slovakia as depicted here—they were then plunged into the turbulent and dangerous atmosphere of postwar Czechoslovakia. As journalists for many years, they specialized in both reportage and impressionistic pieces combining fact and imaginative re-creation.
It was only natural, given their life experience, that my parents would put their best thoughts and feelings into storytelling. Their love for each other and their family, their appreciation of literature and music, and their Jewish values were what gave them the strength not only to persevere but to turn their hardship into art.
In 1976, my family left Prague for Toronto. Various factors, including the language barrier and encroaching age, conspired against my parents’ returning to their work as journalists and writers, but one of my mother’s fiercest wishes was to see their book of stories published and read in English. She died last month just shy of her eighty-ninth birthday. My father, also almost eighty-nine, survives.
“Concerto in G Major” was translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker, whose many renderings from that language include, most recently, Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street (Soho, 2015).
—Jaroslava Tausinger Halper
It was still winter where we were. But truly we had descended into the Promised Land—starving, gaunt, in filthy clothes, the landscape below us green like a blurry watercolor, the air soothing beneath a glassy sky.
That April, the last remnants of snow trickled down the hillsides. The smell in the air was indescribable, unique, the breath of spring awakening that so clearly sets those few days apart from the rest of the year.
Up until then we had been in the mountains. Ten disparate, estranged humans in an underground hole, animals scenting danger, bunched together in a shivering cluster. Men and women of varying temperaments, personalities, opinions—and all around us Death. I was going on seventeen (the year that old ladies most fondly remember: dance parties, the first love notes), and even if young people do endure hardship more easily, there were moments when all I’d wanted was for it to be over, I didn’t care how. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to live again. Had it ever really been possible? Or was it just a beguiling fiction?
And yet life was supposed to happen any day now. Everyone thought about it feverishly, but we were afraid to say it out loud, even in front of each other. And the Germans were still holding on, firmly dug in, eager to take us down with them in their death throes.
In the end they came over—literally, over our heads and bodies. They broke open our bunker with grenades just as the Partisans had warned and predicted.
We squatted in a nearby hollow overgrown with thorns and bushes. Saw their legs in tall boots, dashing about. Heard them calling, shouting, then the explosion and the smoke and smoldering flames shooting out.
How did we, helpless and intimidated as we were, make it out of there? How was it that fate spared us, the same fate that so cruelly afflicted so many millions? Why us of all people?
However it happened, the reality remains that we survived—all of us. The little children stayed quiet and didn’t scream; the pregnant woman whose husband prayed incessantly, silently moving his bloodless lips while his upper body rocked back and forth, didn’t go into labor. The whole time she sat in one spot, unmoving, face swollen, holding her husband’s hand, leaning on him as he leaned on his Lord. Once the fighting was over, she raised herself up, again without a word, and hanging heavily on his pious arm dragged herself out along with her burden.
We didn’t break down in tears when we saw the destruction, but it was obvious that there was no going back to the bunker. Extinguishing the fire and stomping out the embers, we called a meeting to decide what next.
Suddenly a man flashed by—actually, his shadow. Skinny, soft-bodied, almost boneless, long hair flying. Crazy Jakubovič. Nobody knew whether he had been like this before. The Partisans tolerated him as long as they were here, but when setting out on their arduous journey across the peak of Chabenec in the Low Tatras, they couldn’t be burdened. So they’d left him here with us.
Jakubovič walked with his odd, lurking, creeping gait; he appeared to be stepping sideways. Did he even see us? We almost didn’t see him . . . maybe it was just a rustling of dry leaves? This was no laughing matter. They may have been the last Germans, even the Partisans said so. But what if—what if they were still down there?
That was the dividing line between life and death, so thin it was imperceptible; and there was no one to give us so much as a hint where it lay.
We had always imagined that when we finally came down from the mountains, there would be no song beautiful enough, no laughter bright enough, no step light enough. Now everything looked different. Up there, we’d been sheltered in the womb and embrace of the mountains, dark but dependable, however cruel the cold and snow; the mountains, our stony, silent defenders with their murmuring forest cap, a hundred times more faithful and merciful than any human. Now we were supposed to break loose of their protection? Leave behind the trees’ shade, the hollows, steep slopes, and snowy hillsides and go down, alone, defenseless, and put ourselves at the mercy of men, good and evil? Especially evil.
So we sat there amid the smoldering wreckage of what had been our shelter. And that was when crazy Jakubovič passed by. Walking as if he were shoving himself, as if there were two men inside of him: one resisting, the other forcing him onward. He passed without a glance at anyone. But then, all of a sudden, he stopped, and wrapping his right arm around the slender trunk of a fir gazed at us for a while, his mouth twisted in a quiet, insane laugh.
“They’re here! They’re here!”
“Who?” asked old man Trostler, furrowing his thick, protruding brow.
The madman rocked back and forth so hard he almost fell down, then cried: “The Russians . . . the Ruuuussians. . . .”
We leaped to our feet. It was like a revelation. Or was it a delusion from hell? Trostler sprang up with an agility surprising for his age and threw himself at Jakubovič, shouting breathlessly, “How do you know that?”
The poor devil didn’t answer. He spun breakneck around the trunk, cawing something, then disappeared. Poor Jakubovič! That was the last we saw of him; we searched a long time that evening, calling his name in vain. Maybe he made it down from the mountains and lives there to this day; who knows?
We were stunned into silence. Then, unexpectedly and emphatically, carefully articulating every word, the devout husband of the pregnant woman spoke:
“From the mouth of a fool, the Lord has spoken to us. Tomorrow morning, with God’s help, we will come down from the mountain.”
Many of us in hiding had grinned in scorn at his constant worship; even most old folks who knew their prayers couldn’t keep up with him. He was something of a prophet among sinners, dwelling in his own world, as Eastern and ancient as our prehistoric prayers and rites, alone with his Maker. Yet no one now opposed him. Whatever he said, it was decisive, and decisiveness was what we most lacked. He had voiced what we all longed for but none had dared propose.
He had courage. He had God on his side—and with His aid, what is hard? On our side, we had no one. Up until now we had leaned on the shoulders and weapons of the Partisans, but they had gone off to fight their way to the front, leaving the old, infirm, and little children to await the arrival of freedom where they were. In any case, they wouldn’t have survived the terrible crossing of Chabenec, with its snowstorms and mist.
Few of us slept that night. As was our custom, we laid our blankets outside on the snow. It was one of the nicer nights, that last one; no longer a cold, sparkling sky or a hard, inhospitable coverlet of snow.
My mother prayed through the night while my father sat unmoving in the shadows—perhaps coming to terms with his life in case it should end tomorrow. Protected by ignorance and the optimism of youth, my sister and I slept—apart from a few brief interruptions when through the cracks of my eyelids I saw the silhouette of my father, heavy and still against the darkened background of the sky and the dim paleness of the snow.
In the morning it was all gone. The anxiety, too, had vanished, along with the dim light of hope, sparkling white as the snow among the dark tree trunks. All that mattered was that we were descending into lands inhabited by people. The forest, which had provided shelter, but in which we had also lived like animals in a den for seven cold winter months, remained behind us forever.
No, we would never go back there again.
And look, around a bend in the forest path, a village. So quiet and peaceful that at first it seemed uninhabited. But behind its sleepy eyelids, it might also be secretly harboring death.
Then we saw the soldiers. These were no Russians, but it was too late us to turn back. They called to us in a foreign language; we saw the glint of rifles. We were struck by a sort of paralysis, only our legs moving forward against our will.
The first soldier—or at least so it seemed to me, he was the only one I remember—was black-haired and beautiful. The white of his shirt collar stood out against his swarthy cheeks. But darkest of all were his brows; they weighed down his eyes in a thick, dense arch, converging above the root of his nose.
They were Romanians.
As we struck out from the village that afternoon on another journey, through the same valley that leads to Slovenská Ľupča, with the crossfire between the Russians and Germans booming over our heads, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of sorrow and great injustice. As if fate were mocking us—cheating us of full liberation. Where were the uniforms, weathered with the traces of many, far too many, battles? Since when were the Romanians fighting the Germans, anyway?
Our bitterness grew as the cannonade thundered above our heads. A gentle, sickly, almost cross-eyed sun shone down from the sky, the first spring grass quivering in the hesitant breeze. Birds flew close to the ground.
Ľupča—once emptied of people, now overflowing with them. Not yet a town, no longer a village. None of the original inhabitants, half of them peaceful-minded townsmen, half hardheaded farmers, lived there anymore. Where had everyone gone? It was as if they had been swallowed up behind the houses’ shutters and gates—those houses that still stood.
As if the earth had swallowed up everything even suggestive of peace.
Oh, Ľupča, Ľupča. . . . I’ll never be able to see you any other way again. Your wide streets, poorly paved, will remain in my memory forever: crowded with troops, partisans, refugees
snatched away from their homes by war and tossed in the air—with a blind eye but a firm hand— and still falling. No wonder those who had remained in their homes all this time preferred even now to close their eyes and sleep through it all, as if were just a passing bad dream. Could they even see us, I wondered?
I don’t mean to wear you out with the description of our wanderings. You who have never been through it; you, tired from things that are not tiring, sad and bitter over trivia, you will dismiss me with an impatient wave of the hand. We had completely forgotten how delicious the taste of peace was. But we still had some more traveling to do—and who knew whether our journey would ever come to an end.
Why weren’t we happier, actually?
After a long search and much asking around, we sat lost in a little room where a widowed woman put us up. Nothing in it belonged to us, hardly even ourselves; just our bundles—and the worry I was so baffled to see on my parents’ graying faces.
Ľupča, eaten out of house and home amid the shifting frontline, first by the Germans, sometimes by the partisans, shaking with anger and fear, was now hiding its last remaining supplies. What to do, we were all hungry. Hungry. You could almost see the jawbones chewing incessantly.
Ľupča, Ľupča, I can see myself standing on your bumpy cobblestones, their knobby surface awash in weak sunshine. And facing me two Romanians. One hands me an egg while the other grins openly, with a slightly obscene look. I take the egg. It’s warm. Maybe still fresh from the hen, or warmed by his rough, manly palm.
The egg, tender and round, a texture long unfelt. In broken German the Romanian orders me to meet him here at 8:00 tonight.
In less broken German I promise I will, thinking: if you want to find me, you can look for me in hell. But then how will I ever be able to go out in the street?
Ľupča, Ľupča, in one of your courtyards—the devil knows how I made it to this inner sanctum—I relate to the stunned and teary-eyed inhabitants how we, though innocent ourselves, had to abandon our peaceful home in order to cover up our mother’s tainted origins. This holy lie unexpectedly brings me half of a baby goat and a grandmother’s shaky blessing, the grand matron of the clan touched by a child’s love, which not only moves mountains but also can forgive a parent‘s transgressions.
On top of everything else, my sweatpants had met with a fatal accident. In the bunker up there in the mountains, I had hung them, soaked in snow, over the fire at night, and in the morning a hole had been burned just below the knee. This could have been a catastrophe, but right away my mother mended them with burlap. Three cheers for burlap! Thanks to you, I didn’t go freezing.
But the Romanians had a different opinion. They pointed at me, beaming with wide grins: “Pantaloni, pantaloni. . . .” This cheerful, exotic-sounding word would haunt me even in my dreams. Maybe they didn’t realize how I had been living the past seven months. How could they? Most likely they considered me a native Ľupčaner. Where they came from, it probably wasn’t normal for women to wear long pants; their laughter was half barbaric, half childish.
On that day, like all the others, wakeup time was daybreak. (Whatever happened to the idea that once it was all over I was just going to sleep and sleep and sleep?) I remember it was chilly. My mother wouldn’t even hear of my leaving my miserable sweatpants at home. Clouds rolled across the sky, heavy, somber, grudging. Mud stuck to my feet. The little town was still quiet, with only an occasional figure emerging here and there, fuzzy in the morning haze, to suggest I wasn’t alone.
I actually managed to scrounge up some bread somewhere, and the housewife I got it from alerted me that they might even be selling meat across the way. Accompanying me outside, she pointed to a lone building perched on a nearby hilltop.
I headed straight for it. The house was made of brick, evidently new. Not long ago it must have been one of Ľupča’s most imposing landmarks. Now, though, it wore a tearful, crippled face; the roof was nearly torn off, the remnants jutting pitifully into the air; the windows were pasted over with paper. My heart sank: we had lost more than this in the war—lives, dear and irreplaceable; hearts, once clean and unmarked but carved now by lines of indelible bitterness—but the accusations hurled by this twisted roof were all the more eloquent for being silent. I suddenly had an urge to be back among the trees, which demanded nothing of me, gazing up, up, into the sky, to hide there in their shade and never again have to behold this heavy, incomprehensible world.
From inside I heard strange sounds, the faint echo of a hollow being filled in with earth. Where had I heard that before?
I gripped the handle and the door creaked open.
The courtyard was a mess, hopelessly covered in mud like the road in front. Tools and splintered wood lay everywhere, as if someone had hurriedly thrown logs and stumps into the path of pursuers. To the right, through a dark window, an empty stable stared at me, its gate hanging onto the hinges with its last bit of strength. But to the left, where the courtyard curled into the building, I felt that some invisible force was drawing me on, just a few more steps. . . .
On the doorstep, facing away from me, a soldier in a Romanian uniform sat playing a harmonica, his head tilted back against the frame. His silhouette stood out against the backdrop of the entrance.
Although the outlines of his uniform were unclear, I could see the young man’s slender, sensitive fingers gently holding the instrument, his eyes shaded by thick black lashes. I leaned against the wall to listen as he played. At first I didn’t recognize it. Long ago, so unimaginably long ago. . . .
Suddenly the muddy courtyard disappeared. No fear, no humiliating circumstances—just a quiet summer afternoon, my feet caressed by green grass sprinkled decoratively with an abundance of flowers. The silhouette of the mountaintops standing out against the slowly darkening sky. And me—light as air, trembling with joy. The bright sound of young voices from the water. One of them belongs to Líza. (Will I ever love anyone again as unselfishly as I loved her? Where are you, dear heart of mine?) And he . . . he is here, too. We don’t yet admit what we feel. It might not even be love so much as anticipation, a shortening of breath. Soon it will be night. I lie down in the grass and gaze into the sky, dropping lower, closer, with the dark visage of dusk. I have time, no need to rush. Everything is still waiting for me, everything. High above, a star twinkles. The water gurgling, whispering; I press myself closer to the ground, so I won’t miss a word it’s saying.
The notes fell silent. The soldier stood up and turned around. We both froze. I didn’t even have time to think: what now? I was still so enthralled by the images in my head that I couldn’t quickly find my way back. But now it wasn’t only the music.
You can’t imagine the way my heart stirred. When was the last time I had felt human? Those forgotten notes again inside of me—for a moment life took on again a gentle tinge of pearl, of hope in every hue. Under the slightly elongated black eyes of that young man in uniform, I felt myself changing. No longer was I the poor little evacuee who had stumbled into this muddy and uninviting courtyard, worried she wouldn’t be able to afford a scrap of meat. In her place now was a young girl in a light dress with a flattering neckline that subtly showed off her shoulders. The fabric clung so tightly to her slender waist, you could almost see her blood pulsing. Her fresh oval face was framed by her wavy, shiny hair. . . .
And then everything went dim as I realized how I actually looked, felt the sting as I pictured my faded, weather-beaten coat, with my miserable sweatpants poking out from underneath.
My hand shook as the soldier’s face disappeared in my tears. All I could make out now was the uniform. Instinctively I turned and fled.
But as I reached for the door handle, I thought I heard someone call my name.
I turned. The young man was standing there, motionless, in his right hand the harmonica, his lashes blacker than black, the eyes underneath them full of unknown mystery.
I let go of the handle and traced my steps back through the mud and broken tools to a young man whom a short while ago I didn’t even know. We had to live through all the years of war and deprivation in order to find each other, here, in this God-forsaken courtyard.
To this day I don’t know why I went back.
Love. Of all human affairs, the simplest and the most complicated. What else matters? The whole world is contained in it. Nothing else exists. As if life had begun in that single moment.
How was I still capable of it, after my all-too-young life had taken such a wrong turn? Or was that precisely the reason?
Only at seventeen can a person love like that.
The feelings, breathless and painfully new as you discover your body under the loving hands of another, as you see in another’s eyes something you never knew before—like a cut exposing some other world, slightly terrifying, beneath the surface.
I can’t remember a single place we went to over the next three days. There was just him. Nothing else.
But the sadness was still with us, even when I lost all feeling of myself, even when he took me over completely with his lips and when, his eyes blocking out all else, I had nothing in my arms but him. The sadness didn’t go away, even when he played the melodies that were his companions on a harrowing military campaign in which neither blood nor ammunition was spared. It stayed with us, the sadness, like the harmonica tucked away in the pocket of his worn army jacket.
Did the music make him uneasy? Did it cheer him up?
Over and over I listened to the composition he’d been playing in the messy, deserted courtyard where I had come on my pragmatic errand. When I asked him its name he responded simply: “Mozart, Violin Concerto in G Major.”
The remains of the world among the rubble. Pompeii, the ruined beauty, its cover of lava carried away by notes and harmony.
The notes in which we put our illusions. All our tears. All of our in-spite-of-everything faith in the human essence from which we had grown so dangerously distant. For the first time in months I was moved by something other than the mere struggle for existence, for food and a place in the sun. There was more to life than that, after all.
Three days passed as if in a dream, in the blink of an eye; and then, after three days, the young Romanian showed up for our rendezvous and, saying nothing, hugged me with a strange intensity and wouldn’t let go. Suddenly a feeling of dread crept over me, a terrible inkling, even a certainty—though he had yet to say a word. But over the three days I had matured into a woman, and had learned to grasp things more clearly with my emotions than thousands of words could ever explain. I pulled away and looked him in the eye. He dropped his gaze to the ground.
Reality had decided to tear apart the fabric of our dreams. I noticed we were standing on the edge of a young forest, the young grass turning green amid the sparse fir trees and the clouds racing carelessly across the sky as on some enormous, immaculate playground.
Oh, how I wished I could climb onto one of them and fly off into the far blue yonder where everything was clear and happy, free of the harsh weight of the world. But even a cloud is bound by the earth’s gravity, pulling it down toward the ground; and when its time comes, it humbly returns into the earth’s embrace.
My hand in his palm didn’t even tremble as I softly asked: “When?”
He replied, just as softly: “Tonight.”
He stood, arms at his side, staring at me with those eyes of his. He couldn’t leave! I couldn’t possibly go back to the life I had lived before, as if returning home from some weekend trip! No, I couldn’t suffer anymore. I’d had enough pain and tears! Not this time!
I won’t give you up. Dumitru Jianu. My sweetest. My dear.
Evening descended over the landscape quietly, unobserved. As if some invisible person had wiped away the colors from nature’s face, removing its makeup.
I couldn’t stop wiping my eyes, but the squeak of the wheels and the thump of the wagon had a soothing effect. I could feel Dumitru’s hand on my shoulder. He had snuck onto the ambulance cart to which, after much pleading, his commander had assigned me.
It’s just a matter of taking action. Independently. Freely.
The cart jounced along through the darkness, one link in a long chain, with the balmy spring night all around.
I may have been disappointed that they didn’t give me a weapon; in my state of intoxication I would have savored the taste of combat. But I had to be glad the commander had even allowed it at all. I never thought I would have the chance, so close before the end of the war. It had come as a result of the fear that I would lose him, that morning, at the edge of the forest, when he told me “tonight.”
But when soon afterward I stood in front of my parents, feeling that all too familiar dread as my father’s eyes flashed in a mixture of scorn and menace, his high forehead creased in anger, it was no longer just about that. Suddenly I saw again our small, cozy vacation cottage on the slopes of Martinské Hole, the mountain from my childhood. A gigantic man in boots and riding pants stands in the dining room, the whole cottage alive with activity. Gruff male voices ring out from every direction, rows of rifles lean in the entryway, and there are we, dead-tired, huddled on the doorstep in a sorry little bunch. We’d just crossed Minčol and Martinské, fortified by nothing but our fear, and here we are face to face for the first time with actual flesh-and-blood Partisans. Why? Why couldn’t I find the determination within myself to grab the reins from the hands of the crazy coachman and stop the runaway team of horses myself?
It was like living through my own birth. If it hadn’t been for the young Romanian with the dark eyes and the harmonica in the pocket of his thread-worn army coat, the harmonica with which he so heartrendingly played Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G Major, I never would have been able to do it.
To our front and to our rear the long wagon train rattled on. Underneath the coarse cloth of my army skirt I could feel my loved one’s heartbeat. Up above, the stars lit up, one by one, as the moon rose, veiled and lost in thought. The air was fresh, forecasting the imminent arrival of May—and we were moving forward, ever forward.
A new life was beginning.
One week later, Dumitru died in my arms.
How could I just leave him there, in the cold, dark ground? In his hand he held the cheap harmonica.
And the trees and the grass and the flowers, even the sky high above him, will go on endlessly playing his eternal concerto in G major.
Welcome to Mosaic
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and cultureSubscribe Already a subscriber? Sign in now
Welcome to Mosaic
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and cultureSubscribe Already a subscriber? Sign in now
More about: Czechoslovakia, Fiction, Holocaust, Literature, Love